The Mad Postman, The Invisible Schooner, and The Greater Cause, in Meat-based Parallel Processing 1

“When you’re a… Scientist…” as Bowie didn’t actually say, you pass your exams, get set up somewhere, but then just behave however you like, because science is, by definition, what scientists do. Hence, whatever you do will be science.

I know that because I’ve seen it. But a scientist is actually part of a machine that produces science, or is supposed to be. What if that person behaves more like a person, being influenced entirely by peer pressure and personal benefit? Can they still be a proper scientist?

Unfortunately, no. The motives of peer pressure and looking after number one are not just sometimes at right angles to the interests of science, they’re often antagonistic to it. If you really want to play your true part, to be a sound individual component in that parallel processing machine made out of meat cogs which constitutes the ideal scientific community, then just being a Mediocre Bloke won’t cut it.

See how Mediocre Bloke and True Scientist behave differently under various challenges:

1: Someone proves your idea is wrong.

The TS adjusts all their beliefs to take on the new development, and passes it on to others.

The MB works out how any resulting embarrassment will harm him. If it’s too serious to accept, can this new information, or its carrier, or anyone else carrying it, be ignored? I.e., can we rely on everyone else who hears it, being tempted to suppress it? If so, ignore it.

2: Someone who’s proved your idea is wrong, refuses to be ignored.

MB: Gather your confederates, try to Remove the Problem, and hope your initial hunch was adequately cunning.

[TS: Won’t reach this part of the flowchart of course!]

A couple of points:

Confederates? There are two classic moulds of scientist: the herd member, seeking safety through conventionality; and the maverick. Embarrassingly for the herd members, the whole point of science research means finding useful changes: that inevitably means being different. So choosing conventionality may allow you to be a scientist but not a spectacular researcher; but luckily non-scientists haven’t twigged this, and fellow herd members will hardly draw attention to it. In fact, if they play their cards right, they can make it seem like the important thing is Not Being Wrong (or being Nice Mr Super-Calm!) rather than Finding Good New Ideas. Even when you couldn’t avoid being wrong, most others probably would be too… but when the majority follow this strategy, there’s a good chance they can warp reality and insist it’s the new idea that’s wrong! That’s the beauty of having confederates; and another beautiful thing is, the mavericks by nature seldom unite, since their strategy is purely trying to do good science, not one of strength through numbers.

Although challenge 1 above involved conscious intentional ignoring, it is terribly common to see genuine failure to recognise the arrival of a massive game changer. A tale is told of islanders in the South Pacific, foraging on the beach and seeing, or refusing to see, the first European sailing ship to reach the area. But the islanders just carried on collecting shells, and didn’t react at all. Perhaps it’s a combination of shock, and knowing of no suitable response to a very unusual percept. This I what I mean by The Invisible Schooner. (Why call it a schooner, when ships used for exploration might not have been schooners? Because… schooner is a word of… inspirational imagery, well suited to a South Sea vista 🙂 . And on checking I find some were indeed used for exploration! Presumably the diagonal sails offering more directions, were useful for the job.) And that fellow of the Royal Society, reporting that nothing much had happened when tasked with summing up the year during which Darwin and Wallace presented their funny new idea: well, he was suffering from The Invisible Schooner.

Sometimes it’s semiconscious, but you at least recognise you’re confronted with something weird. In that case, True Scientists should train themselves to recognise the syndrome, so they can at least pass on that something that might be important, albeit currently uncategorisable, has transpired.

But not seeing The Invisible Schooner is not as bad as not being a Mad Postman.

It has occasionally been my privilege to work alongside the odd very clever type, and one such invented the idea of passing a message along without hanging on to it long enough to see exactly where it was going: pass on the first part of the address as you read it, so if it all had to be passed on, you hadn’t wasted any time. This was called The Mad Postman strategy. It did result in a few loose fragments flying around but they could be handled, and the important thing was making communication faster.

A scientist who thinks he’s good, in the sense of being a cut above the rest, rather than being good enough to do their duty, will often forget two essentials:

1: As part of the Science Machine, you are not just a processing unit, you’re a part of the network. A piece of the continent, a part of the main.

2: Even if you are part of the process of deciding what is sound science/correct theory, it is never your job to take it upon yourself to veto an idea. Thinking you’re clever enough to make that judgement and deprive others of even seeing the new idea, is an absolute no-no. Criticising what you in all honesty see as a bad idea: fine; part of your duty as a scientist. Blocking a new idea, particularly if others are unlikely to get it from other sources: that’s Vandalising the Science Machine. Unless, of course, you are so perfect you can embody the entire task of science in yourself.

Unfortunately, few in science appreciate how important inter-scientist communication is, or that they are obliged to behave properly with regard to it, or that they are fallible. Far too many look at an idea, or even the first lines or even words of an idea, snort, and make sure it never gets past them. But if you haven’t put forward a criticism of it, and discussed it with the owner of the idea, don’t pretend what you’ve done is science. Consider the chance you might – just might – have something to learn yourself.

Such is the ratio of traffic to individual invention, that even if a worker creates many new mini-insights themselves, the harm they do by not passing on other’s ideas that they haven’t fully understood, can vastly exceed the benefit they contribute themselves.

Looking around various fields of science, I am struck by the enormous damage wreaked by tiny-minded, big-headed vetoing. To show you have mastered the duties of a research scientist by passing a PhD, you are supposed show you can do a literature search. Far too many treat this as a token skill they use once then throw away. They don’t realise that if you give anyone advice on a field of science, you need not just be familiar with the landscape, you have a duty to represent it fairly and accurately. That theoretical landscape includes lots of other people’s ideas, not just yours. And other scientists are on average never as stupid as the individual likes to think they are. While it is all too seldom appreciated that when going to an expert to advise us on a risky decision, getting the response “I recommend caution” is not helpful to the already worried advice seeker, the expert, as well as recommending a choice, must present the options, not distort reality.

Getting this wrong is the kind of mistake available even to talented scientists, indeed they’re at least as prone to it as anyone, and they can do it even if they’re trying to do right. Of course Mediocre Bloke will block any threatening idea if he thinks he can get away with it, and never even try to do the right thing. And there are some who feel the idea might be ok, but, oh… well… there’s something they just don’t like about the person who told them the idea! And all too often, the characteristic that proves so annoying is the tendency to come up with interesting new ideas in the first place!

Let’s look at a few examples…

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